Throws Like a Girl

I have a big mouth and a bold personality, and I talk a good game of tough. Yet when it comes to new activities and adventures, I am a big, fat chicken. Mack was the opposite of me in this regard. She had a soft voice and a gentle personality, and she never talked a good game of tough. She actually was tough; and when it came to new activities and adventures, she was absolutely fearless. Playing tackle football was a perfect example of Mack’s true grit.

When she brought home from school a registration form for the American Youth Football League of Sangamon County, Mack made her pitch for why we should let her play. First, she well understood the rules of the game from watching the NFL on Sundays with me. Second, she could throw a tighter spiral across longer distance than any of the boys at school. And third, football was by far her favoritest sport. The third point did absolutely nothing to support her case, because Mack said that about every sport she played. Yet the first two arguments were compelling enough for me, so I filled out that form and put it in the mail. I will admit that I half expected to receive a call from the league, telling me that girls could not play, and I rehearsed a speech to change their minds. Thank goodness that call never came. Yet there was a fair amount of shock that rippled through the assembled volunteers who greeted us at the weigh-in and equipment pick-up day the week before practices began. As it turned out, the league had not realized that “Mackenzie” was a girl, and seeing her there to register was a surprise. But despite that surprise, they happily registered Mack and, actually, treated her a little bit like a celebrity as they took her weight and found equipment perfect for her 10

Mack had always been rowdy and rough, physically strong and mentally determined. But I first came to appreciate her fearlessness when I took her to her very first football practice. Next to the car in the parking lot of Southern View Park in Springfield, I helped her to lace up her shoulder pads and to pull an adult-sized St. Louis Rams jersey over them. After she was suited up, Mack, who was just six years old, took off running across the field to meet her new football coaches and new teammates. She had not hesitated. She had not looked into my face to find encouragement. She did not need it. I had a thousand doubts about what Mack was about to do that day and so many fears about what she might face, but she harbored none of my doubts nor any of my fears. With excitement and with confidence, she ran fast towards all of those boys and towards a sport that I worried might not accept her.

As I watched Mack run towards that first practice—with concerns for her physical safety and all of the unknowns of how coaches, players, parents, and opponents might respond to my little girl’s participation—I was nervous for her; but I was also very much in awe of her. Mack was a brave girl…a brave kid…that day. Watching her sprint towards that new activity and that new adventure with such passion and with such certainty solidified my respect for her. She was just a tiny little child, but she was a big, brave hero to me.

While the league had not thwarted Mack’s desire to play football, I was still nervous that the coach of her assigned team, the Springfield Steelers, might offer resistance. Luckily for Mack, however, her head coach was a sweet and wise man named Scott Sables. When Mack arrived at the first practice, Scott knelt down to her eye level and he said, “Don’t think of yourself as a girl on a boy’s team. You are just a player on the team like everyone else.” Mack remembered those words and that coach for the rest of her life. Scott not only accepted Mack as a player, but he also held the same expectations for her as he held for all of the boys, and this fair treatment set the tone of her experience on that football team. She was afforded every opportunity to thrive as an athlete. Never did she experience a slight, a negative comment, or any disrespect from her coaches, teammates, or parents of teammates. In fact, she was a favorite teammate and a friend.

Mack had arrived at that first practice with confidence in her athleticism to play the game, she met immediate acceptance, she worked her little butt off (becoming one of the team’s best tacklers), and she earned her place as a quarterback and a leader. From the beginning, she stood out for her physical ability, her toughness, and her football knowledge; all good qualities in a quarterback. And it did not hurt that she knew her left hand from her right hand, as well! It was a joy to watch her play, and I was always tickled to hear her yell-out the snap count, her voice loud and tinged with just a touch of swagger. Sometimes, Mack’s braid would fall out of her helmet, and from the opposing sideline we would hear, “Is that a GIRL?!!” Mack already enjoyed the support of the Steeler moms and dads, but many parents on the opposite sidelines ended up cheering for her as well.

football9When the local public radio station showed up at a practice and later a game to do a story about the girl football player, Mack was embarrassed and a little confused. She was oblivious to how totally cool it was to be the lone girl in that football league. Later in life, she came to appreciate the experience as formative; but when it was all unfolding before her bright eyes, she just flat out enjoyed it. To her, she was a kid playing a game she loved. And because Mack approached her participation on that football team as an equal teammate with equal responsibility for working hard and hitting hard, the experience was formative for many of her teammates as well. She illustrated for a lot of little boys her age the toughness and ability of which girls are capable. I have no doubt that Mack’s presence on the Springfield Steelers made an important impact on many of her teammates and even some of their dads.

Danan Beedie, one such teammate, is a case in point. Danan, a high school football player, remained a friend through high school, and on one particular occasion he stood up in a class and supported Mack’s toughness in a feminist argument by calling attention to the fact that she had played tackle football with him. Mack rarely volunteered information to me about her days at school, but she came home to share that story; and when she told me the story, she beamed. Perhaps that had been the moment when she realized that playing football with boys was more than just fun. When Mack and Danan graduated from high school, Danan’s mom took me aside and thanked me for letting Mack play football all those years ago. She believed that being a teammate with Mack on the gridiron helped Danan grow up to be a good young man, respectful of women as equals.

Looking back on Mack’s short tackle football career, I always smile when I think about her and those other little kids, tackled mostly by the weight of their own football pads. I can close my eyes and hear Mack’s bold snap counts, as she lined up under center. I can vividly recall the excitement in Mack’s little face every time she had the opportunity to make a tackle, especially if there was a whole of lot of wet mud in the bargain. I had a great deal fun cheering her on from the sidelines, but Mack actually played the game. And for that, I am still very much in awe.

“Throws Like a Girl,” story on WUIS radio:

Mack wrote an award-winning essay about the importance of a her coach’s words to her as she grew up as a girl who loved sports (

N. P. Fizz

I think you can tell a great deal about people by how they care for and treat animals. And if I am correct, which I frequently am, and loving animals really is an indicator of the size and character of a person’s heart, then Mack’s heart was as big and as pure as any human heart has the capacity to be. She swooned for animals, big and small, and she absolutely adored all of the pets we had over the years. Our family cats, dogs, rodents, and even fish commanded her full attention and undying love. She never got tired of them, and she was never too busy to scoop them up or lay down on the floor to wrestle with them. Mack carried on full conversations with our pets, shared her bed and her pillows with them, missed them terribly when she was away, and demanded her friends to interact with them and to love them as well.pugs

Our family’s pair of Pugs, Napoleon and Josephine, came to live with us in October 1998, and from their arrival onward, they were a wonder and a delight to Mack. They were just puppies when we adopted them, about a year-old I believe, and Mack was smitten. I think she mastered her fine art of hugging on those two little, spoiled pups. Mack never showed favoritism with our pets, but she and Napoleon always had a special bond; and after we lost Josephine too early at the age of just ten, the friendship between Napoleon and Mack deepened. When Mack started to listen to rap music early in middle school, she began referring to Napoleon as N. P. Fizz (and sometimes N. P. Fizzle), and she always said it with such gansta style. Mack believed that since Napoleon was the coolest dog on the earth, he deserved a name to reflect his puppy panache. That dog frequently had his tongue or a bottom tooth hanging out, so I think it suited him, too. I am also pretty certain that Napoleon liked his glitzy name, because everything that Mack did or said was okay by him. His curly tail and his fat little rump shook like mad every time Mack talked to him and whenever he heard her arriving through the front door.

Napoleon 3When N. P. Fizz got older and began sporting a distinguished gray muzzle, Mack’s boyfriend Abhinav began calling him The Professor. Mack liked the idea that the old guy had gotten some respectability, but to her, even in his dotage, he remained N. P. Fizz. In the spring of 2011, Napoleon had lost quite a bit of spring in his step, and the vet diagnosed him with diabetes. Mack learned how to give him his insulin, and she helped me cook a bland mixture of lean ground beef and rice to assist his diet. Not long after the diabetes diagnosis, we noticed a lump on the poor little guy’s belly, and the vet’s news this time was even worse. He had a cancerous tumor, and the diabetes would complicate surgery. There was really nothing we could do but to make him comfortable. We were all devastated that our time with our happy, easy-going Pug was almost over, but Mack decided to make the most of every day she had left with him.

Over the course of the next several months, Mack took on the role of hospice. The first thing she did every morning was to cuddle with her N. P. Fizz; and every night when she got home, the first order of business was to locate him and plop down on the floor beside him. Each night, she watched TV with Napoleon on the living room floor, and then she would carry him up to her room and deposit him on a comfortable pillow on her bed. Her interaction with him kept him going, and most of the summer and fall there was a twinkle in his eye because of her. He always ate when she was with him, although Mack would gently chastise him for spitting out the rice in favor of the ground beef. In the fall, Napoleon’s health worsened. But as the tumor grew, as his body odor intensified, and as his fat and happy form withered away, Mack never stopped caring for him. She gave him frequent baths, she talked to him about better days, and she loved him unconditionally. So many other kids would have cast that poor little sick dog aside because he was smelly and old. But not Mack. She did not waste one minute with her best little Pug friend.Back Camera

The week before Napoleon passed, he gathered up some energy for brief moments at a time and reminded us all of how funny he was. That week he carried around his stuffed green duck, a favorite toy. He chomped on a rawhide until it was gooey. He pranced after Mack. And he ate more hamburger and rice than he had eaten in months. I know for certain that N. P. Fizz lasted longer than he should have because he did not want to leave Mack. She had wanted to be there for him when he was feeling his worst, and Napoleon knew how special that was. That last week of spunk was all for her. Napoleon died in his sleep on Thursday night, October 22, 2011. Mack had been his buddy to the end, and there is no doubt that he died knowing that he was very much loved. Watching Mack care for N. P. Fizz in those final months warmed my heart. And it serves as yet another shining example of the sweet and gentle spirit and the full size and capacity of my little girl’s heart.

Mack and Abraham Lincoln

Mack, the poor little devil, spent her entire life with Abraham Lincoln. She grew up on Lincoln Avenue in Abe’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, made very frequent visits to all of the Springfield Lincoln historic sites on school trips and with out-of-town relatives, and practiced with her high school golf team at Lincoln Greens, where Lincoln’s face is plastered on the golf carts. Springfield kids have a hard time escaping Lincoln, but Mack had it worse than most, because for most of her life I was an editor at the Lincoln Papers.

Mack always told me that I knew way too much about Lincoln, that I talked about him more than was normal, and that I really needed to get a life. Mack and her friend Justice called me a Lincoln stalker, and they had a lot of laughs at my expense. From a young age Mack had a healthy amount of skepticism about Lincoln; and like she did with most things that were a tad kooky, she viewed the whole Lincoln mania thing with a great deal of humor and dramatically raised eyebrows. Lincoln 1She was always quick to point out the absurdity of seeing a Lincoln impersonator on the Old State Capitol Square in downtown Springfield, even though it was a very common occurrence. She cackled whenever she saw ludicrous advertising using Lincoln’s image to sell some modern product like a car or bag of potato chips. And she relentlessly teased me when I talked about Lincoln in the present tense. “He’s dead, Mom,” she always reminded me. “He. Is. Dead. You know that, right?”

Over the years, Mack, like hundreds of other school kids in Springfield, created artwork and essays for school projects each February in celebration of Lincoln’s birthday. I was always particularly enthusiastic about seeing those projects when they made it home. Mack’s adorable kindergarten drawing and essay occupied a prominent spot in my Springfield office at the Lincoln Papers for more than a decade and it now hangs in my home office in St. Louis. Lincoln2But a project for fifth grade was particularly exciting to me. One of Mack’s fifth-grade teachers at Dubois Elementary conducted an annual living history program in which the students studied various aspects of Illinois history throughout the fall and winter. In the spring, the kids chose one of those topics to research in depth and then they created skits, dramatic readings, or historic re-enactments to present their findings at an outdoor living history event, which was open to the public.

On the day the students selected their topics, Mack arrived home from school excited to tell me that she had chosen the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. “That’s so perfect,” I said, and then I asked: “so who are you going to be?” She looked at me like I was a gigantic idiot who had just uttered the most stupid question ever in the history of mom questions. “Well, DUH,” she answered, annoyed. “I’m Lincoln, Mom. Like anybody else could be Lincoln? I told them I had to be Lincoln.” And so, in May 2005, Mack played Abraham Lincoln to her friend Anna’s Stephen Douglas. I was so tickled to watch Mack Lincoln enacting the debate on that spring day in the historic Lincoln neighborhood, just a block down from the Lincoln Home. Hands down, she was the best and the absolute cutest Lincoln I had ever seen or will ever see again.


I have spent most of my professional life with Abraham Lincoln, and I was always happy to share him and my love of history with Mack. She indulged me…a little…feigning interest while I rattled on about a Lincoln document I was editing or a new book about Lincoln. And, frankly, I needed her sharp wit to yank me out of the nineteenth-century when I went a little bit too far. In middle school and high school, Mack habitually chose Lincoln for her essay or research paper topics. While I am sure she mostly did so because it was easy and because we had a lot of Lincoln books in the house (which saved her a trip to the library), I was always giddy about helping her. She even used Lincoln as a college essay topic; and her humorous take on Springfield Lincoln mania set the stage for a memorable interview with her admissions counselor at Truman State, who met with Mack just a few months after giving birth to her son, whom she had named Lincoln! Good old Abe even followed Mack to northern Missouri.Lincoln5

My most treasured Mack and Lincoln memory was made in the summer of 2012, when I had the honor and the privilege to call Mack a colleague. The Lincoln Papers had a little grant money to process digital images of Lincoln documents that we had received from the Library of Congress. Mack was one seven teenagers selected to do the work. Her quiet, sweet charm and her dry wit with my colleagues and our project’s group of volunteers made me proud, and I beamed at her success with the work as well. She learned quickly, multi-tasked brilliantly, and ended up processing more documents than anyone else that summer. It was a lucrative summer for Mack, but it was an expensive one for me. I had to buy two rounds at Starbucks every morning, but it was so worth it. I am not sure I ever told Mack how much it meant to me to have her in the office every day that summer as I prepared to give her up to college. But…oh…how very much it meant, indeed. Sometimes now when I am using our project’s database, I will come across a document that Mack processed, and there is her name. It forces a little air out of my lungs and frequently results in some tears; but mostly, it makes me smile. It is like having a little piece of her connected to my professional work; Mack, Lincoln, and me, together forever at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.Lincoln database

I am really happy that Mack knew something of what I do for a living, and I am so grateful for her playful indulgence of my historical interests, even though they were not her cup of tea. Always a trooper, Mack let the Lincoln thing fly; chiming in with her brilliant comedy, yes, but accepting Lincoln as an important part of her upbringing as well. In one of her college essays Mack wrote: “The weight of Lincoln’s legacy is a heavy burden to bear,” but I know that she was just exercising her deft hand with sarcasm and hyperbole. Deep down, Mack appreciated that Lincoln gave her hometown a little pizzaz, and I am confident that she believed it was kinda cool that her mom made a living studying the guy who made her hometown so special.

Mack with her summer colleagues at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln…

Lincoln kids

Psst…in case you can’t figure it out, Mack is the one behind and slightly to the left of Mr. Lincoln.

Hoosiers and a Hedge Maze

In the summer of 2004, Mack was a ten-year-old rising fifth-grader playing on a competitive basketball team with girls who were a year older. After a schedule of local games in Springfield and a few area tournaments, the Sonics ended up in a regional tournament at Indiana University. We were happy to give Mack a serious basketball experience and excited to enjoy a simple, summer family getaway as well. But it was one of those crazy years that the Illinois legislative session continued well into the summer; so Kevin, who covered Illinois politics for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was unable to leave town with the girls and I on Saturday, July 17, for the drive to Indiana. When I pulled out of the driveway that morning in our brand new Honda Element, I had no idea that this little trip to my native state would be such a significant one. That trip gave Mack an experience that inspired her throughout her basketball playing years, turned out to be a fateful one for Savannah, and conferred upon me a special, memory-making, all-girl road trip with my two favorite people in all of the world.

We spent the first half of that week-long trip in Bloomington, Indiana, wandering around IU’s campus and watching preteen girls play basketball. Mack was so happy and comfortable to be the little kid on that basketball team, and playing at the tournament with them was exhilarating to her. The Sonics lost in the championship game, but Mack was not disappointed. She was such a wise little kid, breathing in the experience, just thrilled to be dribbling with the big girls. She was also honored to be a chosen as a rebounder for a teammate participating in the three-point shooting contest that took place on the Hoosier’s basketball court. Standing on that hallowed Hoosier hardwood was a dream for Mack, and the experience inspired her for her entire basketball career.Sonics3

Savannah, who had not been all that thrilled about our basketball-centric trip when it had started, was inspired, too. But for her, it was not the basketball that offered the spark; it was the lush green and floral landscapes, the Indiana limestone buildings, and the meandering medieval-style walls of the outrageously gorgeous IU campus. As it happened, Savannah was preparing to begin her all-important junior year of high school that fall, and college was very much on her mind. On that summer trip, she fell in love with IU. Had it not been for Mack’s basketball tournament, Savannah might never have considered Indiana University at all, let alone chosen it as the perfect fit. Mack always took a little credit for Savannah’s decision to attend Indiana, arguing on many occasions that all roads lead to the Assembly Hall in Bloomington.

The second part of our all-girl road trip was a bit on the wacky side, but it has remained one of my favorite vacations. We left Bloomington after the tournament and drove south through scenic Hoosier National Forest. Driving through the southern portion of Indiana with my girlies was such a treat, and we all giggled and sang and Mack drove Savannah and I crazy with her bad jokes from the back seat. When we drove through Jasper, Indiana, Mack and I rolled down the windows and yelled hello to Scott Rolen, her favorite Cardinal baseball player, who grew up there. I am not even sure how Mack knew that little piece of sports trivia, but she did; and we paused ever so briefly to acknowledge it. We stopped at Santa Clause, Indiana, just long enough for a photo opportunity, and then we settled in at a resort hotel in New Harmony, Indiana, along the Wabash River. I had promised loads of time in the fabulous hotel pool, some good food, and a movie of their choice (we saw “Dodgeball,” which Mack declared was the best movie of the year). But as usual, I had a little history on the agenda as well.

New Harmony is a tiny, historical town that possesses great charm if you are a nerdy history buff like me, but it holds little allure for kids. Therefore, I had my work cut out for me. We walked around the town center looking at old buildings, and I picked up some tourism flyers and purchased a little book about the historical beginnings of the settlement, founded in 1814 by religious dissidents called the Harmonists. One night after dinner and swimming, I read to the girls about the funky little colony, its quirky residents, and its fascinating history. They rolled their eyes, not even pretending to pay attention, and went back to whatever they were watching on the TV. I left them alone and turned my attention to the tourism materials, which revealed a fantastic, historical secret weapon.

The next morning, I drove the girls to the edge of the town for a little surprise. Apparently, when they established New Harmony, the Harmonists built a hedge maze to symbolize their quest for a better life in America. In the 1940s, the residents of the town rebuilt the maze and restored the little building at its center. When Mack jumped out of the car, she ran as fast as she could to the entrance of the maze and disappeared within it. We could hear her cackling and snorting, and we watched as her cute little head, adorned with her backwards Green Bay Packer hat, bounced up and down as she raced through the maze. It was absolutely delightful for me to see my little Macko romping through that maze, pretending to be lost, yelling periodically for assistance, and having so much fun. Savannah put on her best this-is-so-annoying teenage face, but even she admitted that the maze was lovely. And, of course, once again, Mack succeeded in dragging her big sister into the fun as well, encouraging her to succumb to the absurdity of the three of us in a remote and tiny town in southern Indiana exploring a maze made out of bushes.

We spent a good hour exploring that maze, enjoying the cool-for-summer day, before driving back home to Illinois. It was one of the silliest and most simple things we ever did together, but it remains one of my favorite memories. We had embarked on the trip for a basketball tournament, and we finished the trip with so much more. Mack lived a basketball dream and collected some Hoosier inspiration. Savannah found a college. I had my girls all to myself for a precious few days. And we all felt the magic of a hedge maze.

new harmony maze3 new harmony maze2 new harmony maze1Sonics2Sonics1